Call me crazy, but I hereby predict that the New Orleans Saints will make the playoffs this year.
They will win all four remaining games in the regular season, including in the year’s last game against Atlanta, perhaps on a last-second field goal.
Atlanta will also find a way to lose to either the L.A. Rams this week or to a Carolina Panthers team playing for pride in the season’s second-last game.
That will make the Saints and Falcons both 9-7, with the Bucs no better than 9-7. The Saints would then have swept Tampa Bay and split with Atlanta, while TB and Atlanta already have split with each other. In a three-way tie, that would give the edge to the Saints. In another tie-breaker, the Saints would be 4-2 within the division and the Falcons either 3-3 or 4-2. If both are 4-2, the next tie-breaker would be record within the conference (the NFC). There, the Saints would win with an 8-4 record vs. Atlanta’s 7-5.
In other words, if the Falcons lose one of their other three (non-Saints) games, the Saints would control their own destiny, meaning a four-win streak would guarantee them the playoffs.
The question is, why would I think the Saints can win their last four, when they have been so unable to go on a win streak for three straight years?
First, because this is just a better team — with better talent — than either of the prior two years. In 10 of 12 games so far, our offense has been not just good but fantastic. Those two games were anomalies. Barring another major injury, this offense should put up at least 28 points in each of the final four games — and probably more than that in at least two of them.
Aside from an offensive line that is slightly better than serviceable but not spectacular, this is the best Saints offense, in terms of top-to-bottom depth and explosiveness, of the Payton era. Drew Brees is almost as good as ever, meaning Hall of Fame-ish; our RBs are all capable, hard-working, gritty players. Tight end Coby Fleener may not be of Jimmy Graham quality, but he’s definitely among the top 10 at his position in the league. And our wide receivers are a superb collection of speed, hands, route-running, willingness to block, and ability to gain yards post catch.
Meanwhile, the Saints defense is slowly reaching towards “average” NFL level after several years of being horrendous. Cam Jordan is having a wonderful year at DE, as is Kenny Vaccaro at safety. Dannell Ellerbee is playing great at outside linebacker, while Sheldon Rankins gets better every week at DT and Nick Fairley has had about 10 good weeks out of 12 as another DT. Our cornerbacks overall are just average, but no longer an absolute detriment; Jairus Byrd is finally playing decently at another safety spot and Vonn Bell, despite some rookie mistakes, is a solid player.
So, with a league-best offense (or close to it) and an average “D,” the Saints should have an edge over most teams if they can avoid turnovers and stop screwing up on special teams. We have perhaps the best punter in the league (one bad game aside), and a kicker who now is consistently straight, with great range, who just needs to consistently get a little higher trajectory.
And the Saints, I think, will find both incentive and karma in the last four weeks, on three levels: 1) from being woken up by their bad game against the Lions; 2) because karma must favor a team celebrating its 50th season; and 3) because I think the trial relating to Will Smith’s tragic death will inspire a renewed dedication and concentration.
Plus, I think this is a team built to “close fast.” It’s a relatively young team now, which bodes well for stamina (and for fresher legs) this deep in the season, and it features several young players who are improving each week as they get accustomed to the NFL’s level of play.
This just isn’t the lackluster team of 2014 and 2015. It’s an ascending team, about to make a late run.
Just watch. You’ll see the Saints go marching in to the playoffs. Really.